HC Deb 17 February 1817 vol 35 cc403-8
Mr. Bennet

said, that when he animadverted last session on the delay which had taken place on the part of the Crown in the case of individuals under sentence of death, he conceived from the expression which the House gave to their feelings on that occasion, a considerable time would elapse before an opportunity should again occur which might render it necessary to call the attention of the House to the subject. Having how- ever, lately had occasion to visit the prison of Newgate, he found that there were many persons there upon whom sentence of death had been passed three sessions ago, and no determination had yet been come to on the report relating to them. At this moment there were confined in Newgate under sentence of death no fewer than 73 men and 15 women. It was impossible to avoid a feeling of indignation at the scandalous remissness which had taken place in laying the reports transmitted in the cases of those prisoners before the individual at the head of the government of this country. He did not mean to say that this proceeded from any unwillingness on the part of that individual to receive such reports. He believed from the proverbial tardiness of the noble lord whose office it was to lay the reports before the Prince Regent, that the delay would be found to have arisen with him. He would repeat, that the lord chancellor's tardiness and procrastination were become proverbial. There was no case in which any member could in his inquiries come across the path of that noble lord in which he would not find the utmost tardiness and procrastination. The right hon. gentleman opposite bad last year promised tint no practical inconvenience of a similar kind should again be felt, and yet this year they had a renewal of it. The practical inconvenience in this case was not so much the sufferings of the individuals, as the blot on the administration of justice of the country. How many of these persons would suffer the penalty of their guilt he could not know, but some would. Of the hundreds, nay the thousands, whom the cruel pleasure of witnessing the sufferings of their fellow-creatures would draw to their execution, not one probably would be acquainted with the crime for which they suffered. The executions, therefore, would not serve the purpose for which alone punishments were intended—to deter from the commission of crime. He should therefore move, "That there be laid before this House, a return of the number of persons now under sentence of death in Newgate; specifying the crimes of which they were convicted, as well as the date of their respective convictions."

Lord Castlereagh

said, that the hon. member who had made this motion, must forgive him if he said, that he could not believe that he was serious in his desire of obtaining the information for which he thus moved, without giving any notice to the House. A more inflammatory speech than that of the hon. member he had never heard within the walls of parliament; nor a speech more calculated to produce dissatisfaction in the minds of the people as to the mode in which justice was administered. The hon. member, if he really wished for information, and not to make an opportunity for casting unfounded aspersions upon any individual, would do much better to give notice of his motion. But the sole object of the hon. member seemed to be, to come forward to lay at the door of an illustrious and distinguished individual a charge that he always interposed delays to the admit lustration of justice. Now if there was ever a man whose character was respected, both by those who acted with him politically, or those who opposed him—if ever there was a man who commanded the most unequivocal testimony of approbation of his character, from those who had not the least motive for personal partiality or predeliction, it was that very distinguished character against whom the hon. gentleman had thought fit to hazard his unfounded aspersions. Although he was not possessed of accurate information on the subject, yet he would take upon himself the responsibility of saying, that the delay in the case now alluded to, did not rest with the lord chancellor. It was the recorder whose duty it was to call upon the lord chancellor with the report, to be submitted to the council, and it was the recorder's duty, in the mean time, to inquire into all the facts relating to each case. He therefore must, intreat the hon. member, if he took up this subject with the intention of doing good, and not for the purpose of promoting delusion, to give notice of his motion, and not to put the House in the disagreeable situation of hearing unfounded charges made against persons filling the highest situations, with the greatest honour to themselves and advantage to the country.

The Attorney General

said, he did. not rise to defend the noble lord alluded to, for that was unnecessary, but because he was enabled to state some particulars to the House which might throw light on the subject. If the hon. gentleman had drawn his information from persons capable of informing him correctly, he would have found how the delay had arisen. Wiry, the number of persons waiting for the recorder's report accounted at once for the delay. The hon. gentleman had said that 88 persons in all were lying under sentence of death in Newgate. Informer times, long within his recollection, the sessions at the Old Bailey commenced on the Wednesday, and the judges seldom had attended after Saturday. But the sessions now generally lasted a fortnight and longer, and during the whole time the recorder was busied the greater part of the clay, either in attending on the judges, or in trying cases himself. It was a circumstance not generally known, and he was happy to have an opportunity of stating it, that no part of the administration of justice during this long reign had been attended to with so much scrupulous anxiety, as that regarding the manner in which those unfortunate persons remaining under the sentence of the law were to be disposed of. After the conviction and sentence, it was the practice of the recorder to examine all the sources from which light could be thrown on the character of the prisoners; to weigh all the circumstances which might have induced witnesses to go in their evidence beyond the due bounds; and finally, having formed his own opinion, to give a detailed report of the case. He had some days ago had an opportunity of speaking with the recorder on this subject, when he had stated his regret at not being able to prepare himself for the report which it was his duty to give. He had stated the difficulties he experienced from the immense labour of the inquiries, and that of the labour of the sessions; and that at that period there were three score of cases unreported.

Sir M. W. Ridley

regretted any circumstances that occasioned delays in justice. Certainly, they were indebted to the hon. member for the notice he had taken of so important a branch of public administration; and he did not think the grounds assigned of sufficient weight. Whatever might be said respecting dilatoriness in the lord chancellor in the public business, he could say, from his own personal knowledge of him, that the last proceeding in which the noble lord could be dilatory would be in a case in which he might have to recommend mercy.

Mr. Abercrombie

was not disposed to make any objection to the explanation of the attorney-general, but merely to say in the absence of his hon. and learned friend (Sir S. Romilly) who had frequently, but unfortunately without success, submitted to the House alterations in the rigour of the law as to capital punishment; that the circumstances now stated, afforded the strongest argument in favour of these merciful alterations; for if the law did not impose such severe punishments, it appeared that there would not be such delay, because the principal end of the recorder's report was, to state to a higher quarter, whether there were any cases in which capital punishment might be commuted for one less severe.

Mr. Bennet

said, he did not impute want of ability, honesty, integrity, propriety, acuteness of decision, or intelligence in any of the decisions of the lord Chancellor. He had only complained of delay. As to the number of persons under sentence of death, that might be a reason why the last cases were not reported, but it could be no reason why the first were not laid before the Prince Regent. If there was any inconvenience attending the execution of the law on this subject, it was high time that that inconvenience should be remedied—it was high time that the punishment should follow the offence. What had made him so eager to bring the subject forward that night without notice was, that he could not have an opportunity to-morrow, and the sessions began on Wednesday. But it was not merely the number of persons under sentence of death which called for notice;—at this present moment there were more than 200 persons in Newgate, under sentence of transportation. Wherever he had met the government in the execution of the law, he had constantly met delay. He would appeal to the members for London, whether they had not frequently complained on this subject to the government, without getting any redress? He assured the noble lord, that he should neither be deterred by his compliments nor his censure from doing what he thought the public interest demanded of him.

The motion was then agreed to.